A day’s drive from New Orleans takes you into some of Louisiana bayous and into the heart of Cajun country. We have explored Southern Louisiana’s bayou and plantation country before. This time we skipped the plantations to explore some new areas.
Route 90 is the de facto “bayou highway”. We drove from Houma (where seven bayous converge) 90 miles west to Avery Island. Native American inhabited the island for over 1500 years before it developed as a European settlement.
Three interrelated families (Marsh, Avery, and McIlhenny) have owned the island for over 180 years. The island sits on top of a 26,000-foot salt dome and is the site of what is thought to be the first salt mine (mid-1800s) in what is now the U.S. The salt mines closed in 2022. But the island is an interesting stop for several other reasons.
Any nature lover will appreciate a visit to Jungle Gardens. With over 170 acres, it is a wildlife refuge and botanical delight. The first thing you notice is the majestic, moss-draped live oaks
Bird City is a year-round preserve for migratory birds, especially snowy white egrets.
The nature park is lined with nature trails, and gardens including palm, cacti, bamboo, aquatic plants, azaleas, and camellias.
Avery Island is also the home of the McIIlhenny Tabasco Company. Tour the factory and museum to learn the “secrets” behind the production of Tabasco brand pepper sauce and the capsicum peppers from which it is made. Five generations of the McIlhenny family has run the business since the product’s 1868 invention.
As for the recipe: cover red peppers with salt, seal them in a white oak barrel for five years, add vinegar, remove skins and seeds, and bottle. The museum explains how Tabasco marketed its product and infiltrated the country’s culture. Fans included George H.W. Bush to Queen Elizabeth II and Madonna. It is so embedded in the military that it is included in military MRE (Meals, Ready to Eat) packets. The store features a variety of Tabasco-labeled apparel and kitchen products that you can purchase.
A short drive brought us to Saint Martinville in southern Louisiana. French Canadian refugees from British-ruled Nova Scotia founded the Acadian settlement in 1760. The Spanish subsequently took it over and returned it to France who then sold the land to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1847 epic poem Evangeline brought the world’s attention to the Acadian’s expulsion from Nova Scotia to settle here. The Evangeline Oak Park with its 10+-year-old Live Oak and Acadian Memorial commemorates the poem. A lovely boardwalk takes you alongside the bayou.
Longfellow Evangeline State Historic Site showcases a Creole plantation that was built around 1815. The site includes a mixture of French, Creole, and Caribbean buildings and exhibits. Interpretive displays explained the area’s history and the restored plantation home (built sometime between 1803 and 1830). Other buildings include a guesthouse and cookhouse.
An anthropologist guide briefly explained the Acadian migration, the difference between Creoles (whose ancestors arrived before the 1803 Louisiana Purchase) and the subset of Cajuns (who descended from the 200 Acadians who were in the first wave of migrants, arriving in 1760). He also discussed the New Orleans-based owners of the plantation who failed at growing cotton and indigo before modest success in growing sugarcane.
The town also has small museums that document its Acadian and African American heritage.
We passed through the town of Breaux Bridge (where we once spent a wild evening in a Zydeco dance bar) on our way to the mid-sized (120,000 people) city of Lafayette.
Lafayette, another Acadian town, was originally named Vermilionville It retains its legacy with its Vermilionville Heritage Park that recreates the town as it existed from the mid-18th through 19th centuries—as does the nearby Larc’s Acadian Village. An original Vermilionville landmark, meanwhile, is preserved in the form of the 1835 Vermilionville Inn where we had dinner.
We started with an interesting, but ultimately uninspired appetizer combination of cheesy crawfish beignets, tough fried alligator tenderloin, fried pickle slice, rather tasteless grilled Cajun tenderloin, and most interestingly, bacon-wrapped garlic shrimp. Joyce’s pan-seared red snapper with lump crabmeat, parmesan risotto, and lemon-dill beurre blanc was very tasty. The double center-cut pork chop with blackberry veal demi-glace was flavorful was quite fatty. The accompanying sweet potato and andouille hash sounded more interesting than it was. Nor were we excited by the 2018 Cooper Mountain Old Vine Pinot Noir which had lost any fruit that it may have once had.